Writing essays is hard. There are many common mistakes that pretty much everyone makes — which we cover all the time here on the blahg, but we know that some of our posts are fairly far back in the snarchive at this point and unless you’re a total obsessive, you probably won’t read the half of them. And, many of them talk about techniques that you probably won’t really understand unless we point out the mistake that you personally have made in your draft. (Shameless Plug: That’s why the Essay Decimator is so valuable!! Because YOU know what you wrote! How could anyone else NOT know it? It’s the most basic of basic issues with not being able to easily evaluate your own writing, and it happens to everyone.)
Today we’re going to revisit a topic we have written about before that is definitely in the ‘Snark’s lingo, which we sometimes use as a way to ‘hook’ you into remembering it, and to better catch yourself when you’re doing it. This isn’t really an essay-writing sin but if you do this in your writing you are bound to make it hard on your reader. Extreme instances of this will result in an #essayfail, but even mild cases are adding challenges to your draft that you simply never want.
The issue is what we call Timewarping which you can read about in those previous posts. It’s when you jump around from future ideas (“why do I want an MBA from your school”) intermingled with past ideas (“I am prepared for my future goals based on this experience”) jumbled together with career goal statements (“I will do this and that in my post-MBA job”). All of those are fine and easy to deal with when we say them like that, but when they’re comingled in one paragraph — without proper timemarkers — then you run the risk of confusing your reader.
Timemarkers are things like:
“In 2016, when I was an analyst at Big I-Bank…”
“Last year, I completed a project at Boutique Consulting Firm…”
“Attending* the info session in June, I …”
Each story needs a timemarker.
Sometimes, each sentence needs a timemarker.
Here’s what we wrote in some BSer’s essay review recently:
When your just-prior content is about both your long-ago past and also the future why-MBA stuff. Whenever you shift to a different time, needs a timemarker to orient the reader.
Whenever you go from a sentence in one place of “storytime” — which is the “now” that you’re writing about in that specific sentence — to another moment on the timeline, then you need to shift the storytime using a timemarker.
Timemarkers make the writing clear to the reader. They prevent them from getting lost in time.
When you’re reading something, you go into the mind of the reader and you are in that time and space that they’re talking about. With MBA essays (especially why-MBA essays) that are asking you to talk about past and future — and especially, different points in the past or the future (e.g., the MBA will be a future time that — hopefully!!! 🙂 — starts next year, but then the post-MBA career goal is further out on the imagined future timeline, so a reference to that needs a new timemarker), then these sentence-by-sentence shifts need to be “marked” for your reader.
It’s especially important for the MIT Cover Letter, as just one example. This is because MIT cares exclusively about your past experiences, yet you’re writing it to solicit a spot in their future class. And, the other critical reason for timemarkers for MIT is that they only want examples from the past three years. When you include “In 2015, I did this amazing thing blah blah blah” as your sentence, then they are instantly reassured that you’re giving them an example that they want.
Timemarkers are always RELATIVE TO THE JUST-PRIOR POINT. So, they need to be cognizant of where you had last left the reader; what is the “now” of your current storytime? If you’re in the middle of presenting a story that happened last year, and you want to include a reference to something you did in college, then you need to say something like, “Three years before that, when I was at State School, I was President of the Doohickie Club and…”
Timemarkers are like leaving a trail of bread crumbs for your reader in the forest of your mind — or better yet, like lighting candles along the trail. They will help the reader find their way in the dark.
Timewarping is one of the most common problems with early drafts that we see. It seems to occur most frequently in the opening of an essay, but it can happen anywhere; in the middle of a paragraph is common. If we identify “timewarping” as a problem, then this “timemarkers” post will hopefully now help you see how to fix it.
*Note: This verb phrase is actually not the best; EssaySnark is not such a grammar wiz that we can say it’s incorrect, but it’s definitely clunky. Don’t introduce a sentence with a verb ending in -ing (called a gerund? we are too lazy to google it right now).